When announcements earlier this year confirmed that a brand new Steely Dan studio album, ‘Everything Must Go’, was due this spring, seasoned Dan watchers were amazed. Having managed to produce seven masterpiece albums during the seventies, the following twenty years saw but a handful of albums from Becker and Fagen, and only one of those was a bona fide Steely Dan studio album. The news that the guys disappeared into the studio in late 2001 could therefore have resulted in a confident prediction of no new album until 2006. Nevertheless, here is the result of that year in the studio, have the venerable duo managed to surprise us as much with their music as with their schedule?
One surprise was that part of the announcement that revealed much of the album had been tracked live and recorded and mixed in the analogue domain. Particularly given the somewhat robotic and synthetic nature of this album’s predecessor, this was great news for those among us who have noticed how much richer DVD-Audio discs based on high-resolution transfers from analogue masters sound when compared to discs based on digital source recordings. The assumption had to be that the Dan had spotted this too, and hopefully we had a 24-bit 192kHz stereo track to look forward to.
No surprise was the news that ‘Everything Must Go’ was to be Warner Music Group’s second DVD-Audio released on the same day as the equivalent CD release, after Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Say You Will’. But unlike that release, this one hits the streets in the same week on both sides of the Atlantic – Monday 9th June in the UK and Tuesday 10th June in the US. This was only to be expected as Steely Dan have always been notorious for their desire for the highest fidelity, and have been at the forefront of the surround sound revolution since their long-time engineer and mixer Elliot Scheiner followed up his 5.1 mixing debut, The Eagles’ ‘Hell Freezes Over’, with the masterful mix of Steely Dan’s ‘Gaucho’ for DTS CD.
Multi-channel luminaries such as Ken Caillat still list the ‘Gaucho’ mix among their favourites thus far, but even though that project was completed barely six years ago, according to a ‘Surround Professional’ article Scheiner has recently re-baked and re-transferred the ‘Gaucho’ multi-tracks – at 24-bit 96kHz resolution this time – and has apparently revised the mix for the lossless version which will result. This is, however, in accordance with the wishes of the band, who declared at the time of their last studio album, ‘Two Against Nature’, which was conceived with surround in mind, that having gone through that experience they would, in hindsight, have been more adventurous with instrument placements for ‘Gaucho’.
The landmark original surround release of ‘Gaucho’ has been followed by a DTS sound-tracked live DVD-Video, and then respectable DVD-Audio discs of ‘Two Against Nature’ and Donald Fagen’s classic first solo album ‘The Nightfly’. Still to come are the imminent DVD-Audio release of Fagen’s solo follow up ‘Kamakiriad’, and Universal are preparing that revised ‘Gaucho’ for multi-channel SACD release, although the fact that those multi-tracks were transferred and mixed in the PCM domain would undoubtedly render a DVD-Audio version a preferable alternative to many.
‘Everything Must Go’ bears all the hallmarks of a reference quality DVD-Audio disc. It loads with a pleasing animated intro highlighting the graphical theme of the album, which is an abundance of watch faces, whether the watches for sale on the cover, or the simple faces of most of the track backgrounds, no doubt echoing the “no-time-left” lyrical concerns heard throughout the album.
To get the niggles out of the way first – perversely, the intro is not interruptible with the Top Menu button in DVD-Audio mode, but it is in DVD-Video mode. Just as counter-intuitive is the fact that while you can dynamically switch between the MLP stereo and surround tracks using the audio key (this disc conforms to the most recent DVD-Audio authoring guidelines), you cannot switch between the Dolby Digital Stereo, Surround and DTS tracks in the same way. Finally, and most unforgivably, someone seems to have left the time search facility prohibited when authoring the DVD-Video sector. This means that whereas you can use Fast Forward and Rewind to move around within a track if you are a DVD-Audio user, you cannot if you are playing the disc on a DVD-Video player. This disc also exhibits some of the erroneous button highlights present on ‘Two Against Nature’ and many other Warner Bros. discs – has the authoring process still not got more capable than this? All of these observations come with the caveat that this is once again a review based on a production sample.
Those small issues aside, this is an exemplary example of the DVD-Audio art. There is nothing like the thrill of loading up the disc and finding that highly desirable 24-bit 192kHz stereo track present and correct, particularly when you have not been warned in advance. Once again I felt obliged to sample the stereo track to assess the “original” version of the album before venturing into the surround world and found that it has wonderful punch, creating the sensation of air being moved just as if Keith Carlock was playing that kick drum in your living room, and as anyone who has sampled the stereo track on Grover Washington’s ‘Winelight’ DVD-Audio disc will tell you, nothing can convey the complex tonalities of a saxophone as well as a 24/192 DVD-Audio track. Elliot Scheiner’s stereo mix cannot be faulted, and makes a great headphones listen. In a room the track exhibits the uncanny illusion of incredible soundstage depth that I have often experienced with 24/192. The surround track is obviously at the maximum possible 24-bit 96kHz resolution, of which more later. For DVD-Video users there is a full complement of lossy audio options, with full bitrate 448kb/s Dolby Stereo and Surround tracks, and that all important DTS track. Regrettably there is no 24-bit linear PCM track as is occasionally found on some Warner Bros. discs.
Extras-wise the disc offers the choice between song credits and lyric displays as each track plays in DVD-Audio mode, just as ‘Two Against Nature’ did. These are not accessible at track level in DVD-Video mode, but can be accessed from the extras menu. Audio resolution and those inconsistent niggles aside, this is the only functional distinction between the two sectors of the disc. Again like ‘Two Against Nature’ we have a small photo gallery of variously blurry and enigmatic portraits of the duo, but unlike that disc we also have a video extra, the very amusing thirteen-minute version of ‘Steely Dan Confessions’, which is Becker and Fagen in the back of ‘Taxicab Confessions’ Rita’s cab in Vegas. They entice three different females to sit in between them, and I hope Lizzie (the first) in particular isn’t an actor, as her slightly bombed airhead with an approximate grasp of the Dan’s oeuvre is just too perfect a target for the guys’ subtle (or not so subtle) lampooning, and it would be nice to think it was a chance thing. This extra could become the one bone of contention on this disc for the real nitpickers, (and I am often one of them), as at present the unconfirmed press release for this album seems to reveal that there is a twenty-two minute version of this video available on the bonus DVD available with the limited edition CD release. Why the longer version could not be included here I cannot fathom, but I have already consulted David May, the producer of this disc, and he has stated that it was the band’s decision. Segments of this video are also currently available on the band’s website.
One of the ways in which this release differs from all of Steely Dan’s albums since ‘Pretzel Logic’ is that there is a consistent band throughout all nine tracks. Walter Becker plays bass all the way, compared with six out of nine on ‘Two Against Nature’. The remainder of the rhythm section played on some of ‘Two Against Nature’ and were in the touring band for that album. Keith Carlock on drums, Jon Herington on guitar and Ted Baker on piano are complemented by the addition of long-time studio Dan stalwart Hugh McCracken on guitar on every cut, a couple of piano guest spots from Blue Note’s Bill Charlap, and a variety of horn players and backing vocalists, the most prominent of each being Walt Weiskopf and Carolyn Leonheart respectively. This ensemble gives a very cohesive feel to the album, although the bass and drum sounds shift subtly throughout as the songs demand. Studio engineering simply does not get better than this.
There are many familiar lyrical themes, instrumental licks and harmonies on this album, but when the results are this flawless and involving that familiarity is a positive rather than a negative. This album eschews the “chromatic jazz for its own sake” feel of ‘Two Against Nature’, and as a result it is a lot more immediate and likeable. It is almost as if ‘Kamakiriad’ and ‘Two Against Nature’ had not happened and we are listening to the successor to ‘The Nightfly’; in fact this album combines the strengths of that album with those of its two predecessors, and may in the fullness of time come to be seen as the equal of any of them.
It really is that good! The arc of the album is perfect, with a sequence of four elegiac tracks concerning “the start of the end of history”, all with the now familiar incisive blues soloing of Becker’s trusty “strat”, (although not the ‘54 – more later), being followed by a sequence of more sinister, hallucinatory songs drawing on the usual Dan louche libidinousness, drugs allegories, tales of imaginary girls and losers in life and love, starting with the premiere of Becker on lead vocals for the Dan on ‘Slang of Ages’. From hereon in the solos fall to Fagen’s great synth improvs and Weiskopf’s wild tenor breaks, with the exception of the awesome Becker vs. Fagen duel on ‘Green Book. The album ends as apocalyptically as it began with the title track, one of the (at least) two solid gold Dan classics on this album (the other one is ‘Things I Miss the Most’). ‘Everything Must Go’ sticks like glue, firmly in my head on waking the day after my first listen.
The first time through my attention dropped during tracks seven and eight, ‘Pixeleen’ and ‘Lunch with Gina’. The latter has now swung me around, but ‘Pixeleen’ still eludes me lyrically and musically. Still, eight out of nine is a pretty good hit rate these days.
So how well does Mr. Surround, Elliot Scheiner acquit himself this time? Well, the good news is that he does as good a job as he does on the stereo mix of this album. Overall the mix is very enveloping, with many of the supporting instruments appearing in the rear speakers, and backing vocals variously located in the front, the rear and the middle of the room. Treatment and placement vary from track to track and there are different degrees of adventurousness. Only on the most extreme mix, ‘GodWhacker’, is there a suspicion that the surround version doesn’t quite match the tonal or level balance of the stereo track, but the inventiveness of the mix compensates for this.
Taking it from the top, the perky fatalism of ‘The Last Mall’ is buoyed up by a warm surround of keyboards and horns, and the support the centre speaker gives to the main stereo image presents the way Fagen rips into the vocal brilliantly. The missing final chord of this song gives you a brilliant demo of the relative merits of the different tracks. Listen to how real that decaying air from the final thumping of the drum kit sounds in 24-bit 192kHz. ‘Things I Miss The Most’ is just a great regret song, with more support from the rear, and some close backing vocals from Carolyn Leonheart which fill the centre of the room. Just listen to Fagen enunciate “The Sex” which the protagonist misses (along with the ’54 strat – obviously a bugbear of Becker’s). He means it man. ‘Blues Beach’ is a deceptively jaunty ditty with some marvellous instrumental flourishes such as Becker’s bass echoing the keyboard figure as we head into the second verse. The well-worked surround mix really emphasises Fagen’s organ and his complement to the main vocal and Ms. Leonheart’s many voices dance around the room in the outro.
‘GodWhacker’ is the kind of 9/11 observation song that only someone with the studied detachment of this band could pull off. An uptempo groove is propelled by two rhythm guitars throughout, a dampened trilling figure that oscillates forward and back on the left and a chord pattern that does similar on the right. There is a great round bass sound, and the soloing that passes from Fagen’s Nighfly-ish synth to Becker’s huge warm guitar tone sounds gloriously full. ‘Slang of Ages’ features Becker’s Zevon/Cockburn-esque sprech-gesang vocal which suits the dodgy vibe of the song very well, and is supported by backing vocals predominantly in the front, and some marvellous tenor playing, which is not quite as lifelike in 24/96 as in 24/192, but still sounds excellent. Both ‘Green book’ and ‘Pixeleen’ seem to be concerned with cyber-babes, but while the former retains an impressive mystique, with its sinuous groove, great fills and shimmering percussion, the latter seems quite trite, although the male backing vocals and the keyboard pads fill nicely from the rear.
‘Lunch with Gina’ is about a fantasy stalker or a stalker fantasy, I’m not sure which, and its “the waiter never comes” line emphasises that this album’s theme is the New York equivalent of the Eagles ‘Hotel California’ disillusionment. The gently funky bass-line and the superb Fagen solo, along with much discrete instrumental placement make for an interesting mix. Finally the cheerfully valedictory title track closes out with a storming free jazz intro and marvellous tenor outro, and in between is a wry and resigned rumination on the passing of things. Brilliant song, brilliant sound.
I think my views on this disc are probably clear by now, and given that ‘Two Against Nature’ landed four Grammy® Awards it would be a travesty if this album did not come close to that feat, as well as garnering Elliot some more surround garlands. I just hope they make it over to the UK once more on the accompanying tour, as I would love to see if these songs and this band cook as well live as I think they are going to. I could also do with more discs this good, so here’s hoping that all that “end of history” stuff is just an act and the ‘noughties’ turns out to be the Dan’s second prolific decade.